What Sarah Palin’s Endorsement of Donald Trump May Say about Tea Party Women

—Melissa Deckman

[This piece originally appeared on Presidential Gender Watch 2016 on January 26, 2016.]

Sarah Palin’s high-profile endorsement of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Iowa last week continues to dominate the news cycle. Many view Palin’s motives for endorsing Trump as sheer opportunism, while some conservatives, even Palin’s own Facebook followers, feel betrayed by her decision to back Trump given his uneven (at best) record on many conservative issues. Taken at face value, however, Palin’s decision to endorse Trump may best be viewed as an utter rejection of the GOP establishment.

As she indicates in her—ahem—colorful endorsement speech, Palin believes that Trump is a political force that exposes the “complicity” of both sides of the political aisle in enabling a “fundamental transformation of America.” She argues that Trump has been able to “tear the veil off” the political system:

The permanent political class has been doing the bidding of their campaign donor class, and that’s why you see that the borders are kept open. For them, for their cheap labor that they want to come in [sic]. That’s why they’ve been bloating budgets. It’s for crony capitalists to be able to suck off of them…We need someone new, who has the power, and is in the position to bust up that establishment to make things great again.

Palin is not alone among conservatives, particularly those who sympathize with the Tea Party, in their view that the Republican Party is weak-kneed and ineffectual, despite lots of evidence that the GOP has taken a far right turn thanks in no small measure to the Tea Party movement. In my forthcoming book Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Activists, and the Changing Face of the American Right, I interview dozens of women active in the Tea Party and they, too, uniformly express downright derision toward the Republican Party. These Tea Party women believe that the current crop of GOP leaders will do little to shrink the size and scope of government. That belief, in fact, helped to propel their activism in the Tea Party.

However, I was surprised to find that some of the animosity toward the Republican Party among Tea Party women is linked, in part, to their gender. Several activists I interviewed recounted attempts to influence their local or state Republican parties in a more conservative direction, only to encounter a hostile, good ‘ole boys network. For example, Katrina Pierson, who co-founded the Garland Tea Party in Dallas, Texas in 2009, hails the Tea Party movement for allowing women to find their voices as a new generation of conservative leaders, telling me, “It used to be that men in the GOP or male leaders could take a woman’s idea as their own—I have had this experience—but with social media women can be attributed, they can define their own brand, and define yourself and have your ideas heard. You don’t have to go through the good old boys’ club any longer and that has been huge for women.” Women such as Pierson describe the Tea Party as a more appealing form of political activism for authentically conservative women than the GOP. Social media platforms, in particular, not only allow Tea Party women a chance to promote their political views, but also serve as launching pads for their own political careers. For instance, although Katrina Pierson failed in her challenge to Representative Pete Sessions in the 2014 GOP congressional primary in her home district in Texas, her high-profile involvement in the Tea Party led to her being hired as the national spokeswoman for the Trump presidential campaign. She maintains that Trump’s nontraditional campaign appeals to her and other Tea Party types: “He’s sort of not politically correct. He sort of calls it like he sees it. I’m kind of that way, too.”

To be sure, the past several election cycles have brought some very conservative women to prominence within the Republican Party; examples include Senator Joni Ernst (IA) and Representative Mia Love (UT), both elected to Congress in 2014 (and both endorsed by Sarah Palin). Yet their success is the exception and not the rule. Ironically, the challenges that many right-wing Tea Party women face making inroads with the Republican Party are similar to those experienced by women representing the ideologically moderate flank of the party. As the Republican Party has become more conservative ideologically in the past few decades, work by political scientist Danielle Thomsen shows that GOP women state legislators, who have historically been more moderate than their male counterparts, have been reluctant to seek their party’s nomination for Congress, given that primary voters are far more conservative than voters in the general election. Likewise, experimental research by David King and Richard Matland finds that Republican voters may punish female candidates within the GOP, believing that such women are less conservative than their male counterparts; thus, the perception of women being less ideologically conservative may hurt women’s chances to emerge both as candidates and as party leaders within the Republican Party.

These perceptions about Republican women, then, may have spillover effects for women in the Tea Party, despite their very conservative orientation: if Republican party leaders, most of whom are men, believe that women within the party are less conservative than men, Tea Party women may be hindered in their ability to wield influence within the GOP itself, making involvement in the Tea Party a more appealing alternative.

Turning back to the Republican presidential race, however, what role will Tea Party women play in choosing the eventual nominee? Will Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump mean that the “mama grizzlies” she has previously called to arms will follow suit? Possibly. But it won’t likely be because of Sarah Palin’s endorsement alone. Right-wing icon Phyllis Schlafly, whose conservative bona fides are far less open to question than Sarah Palin’s and who has a strong following among socially conservative women at the grassroots level of politics, has also endorsed Trump, declaring him the “last hope for America.” Time will tell if Tea Party women will back Trump or perhaps will find a more “authentic” Tea Party candidate such as Ted Cruz appealing. He, too, was a popular figure with many of the Tea Party women I interviewed, and his anti-establishment rhetoric, as shrill and pronounced as Donald Trump’s, is also likely to find favor with many Tea Party women.

If the latest polls are any indication, however, Palin and Schlafly’s endorsements appear consistent with the sentiment of Tea Party women in battleground states. According to CBS/YouGov, Trump bests Cruz among Republican women and Tea Party voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina who seem to agree with Palin that, “[Trump] is perfectly positioned to … make America great again.” She added, “Are you ready for that, Iowa?” Come next week, we’ll know.

Melissa Deckman is the Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College, where she also chairs the Political Science Department. An expert on gender, religion, and American politics, she is the author or co-author of four books, including Tea Party Women and School Board Battles: The Christian Right in Local Politics, winner of the 2007 Hubert Morken Award for the best book on Religion & Politics from the American Political Science Association. She chairs the board of the Public Religion Research Institute and her political commentary has appeared in The Washington PostHuffington Post, and the Brookings Institution’s FixGov blog. Her latest book, Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Activists, and the Changing Face of the American Right, will be published by NYU Press in May 2016.

Teaching Environmental Crisis and Justice

—Alexa S. Dietrich

When events that are understood to be tragic happen, like the poisoning of the residents of Flint, Michigan, it is typical for we, as human beings, to ask Why? When these events affect whole communities, it then becomes incumbent upon us, as human beings, to ask “How could this happen? because the cause is far less likely to be a random occurrence. Students tend to sense this connection intrinsically, but struggle to think critically about causal factors in situations like Flint.

In classroom discussions, students will often respond to stories of severe environmental pollution in one of two ways. Sometimes they express bewilderment. They feel the inherent injustice but cannot fathom a reason for the damage to people’s health and well-being. The other common response, such as one of my students stated just this week in talking about the toxic waste in Flint’s drinking water, is to say, “It’s almost as if someone planned it.”

It is easy to see conspiracy behind a series of what were, with the benefit of hindsight, a series of despicable acts leading to the potential devastation of an entire community, particularly a community already so disadvantaged and seemingly disposable as Flint. To our shame, in the United States we have long since become terribly inured to the suffering of communities of color, and poor communities.

But while it is easy to imagine a conspiracy of evilly-inclined individuals, such as politicians, plotting to wipe out a community like Flint, this perspective avoids the hard conversations we need to have with our students and others. Explicitly evil intentions are not required in order for great harm to be perpetrated. I am not suggesting that politicians, such as Rick Snyder, are “innocent” in this situation – far from it. Rather, we need to be having frank discussions, leading to actions, about how our culture rewards greed at the expense of human life-especially the lives of the poor and oppressed minorities.

We must, as educators and students, together answer the question, “How could this happen?” The fact is that people with the power to protect the lives of Flint residents chose not to do so. Not once, but many times, people in the position to make decisions about sourcing the water, about testing the water, about reporting the test results and health impacts, made decisions for financial gain or political expedience. And our cultural system (encompassing, e.g., economics, social relations, and ideologies) reinforced the permissibility, the very social and political acceptability of those decisions. There were undoubtedly both legal and moral crimes committed – but accountability for these crimes should weigh heavily on all of us.

In the aftermath of a public health crisis like that in Flint, there are likely to be emerging narratives of the heroic actions of empowered individuals, those who seem to swoop in as community saviors. However, a culture of community engagement cannot, and will not, wait for such heroes, as significant as their contributions may be. As one Flint resident and activist has been quoted as saying, “I decided, I guess I got to figure the science part of this, because you can’t argue with the science.” In the pursuit of environmental justice, there is no substitute for the actions of “non-experts” with local knowledge, and local commitment. But it is also our responsibility to teach and reward this commitment to collective good on a broad scale, more than we currently reward (or at least accept) harmful self-interest, and the violence of disinterest in the well-being of others.

It is also tempting to rely on the explanation of “bad apples,” or individual actors, as is so often used to describe the causes of violence and social suffering perpetrated by institutions. But these explanations are too simple, and release us of our own obligations to care for our fellow human beings. How could this happen? The answer lies in a larger examination of our culture, and our individual roles in it.

Alexa S. Dietrich teaches anthropology at Wagner College, where she is also the Faculty Director of Wagner’s First Year Learning Communities. Her book, The Drug Company Next Door (NYU Press, 2013), won the 2015 Julian Steward Award for the best monograph in environmental and ecological anthropology from the American Anthropological Association.

WASPs Still Fighting for Recognition

—Molly Merryman

“Women Who Flew,” documentary short directed and produced by Molly Merryman & Tom Baumann.

When I interviewed veterans of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, it became clear that what most troubled them was the need to “pass the hat” so that women pilots killed in the line of duty could receive proper burial. They glossed over the discrimination and indignities they themselves endured, but they could not forgive the mistreatment of their fallen comrades.

Nor should we.

It recently has come to light that Arlington National Cemetery has refused to accept the cremains of WASP veteran Elaine Harmon. According to her family, it was her dying wish to be inurned there. Once more, these veteran pilots and their families suffer painful discrimination at the hands of bureaucrats.

The WASPs were 1,074 skilled pilots who flew missions that including ferrying planes from factories to bases, test-piloting new and captured enemy planes, and pulling targets at which live artillery rounds were fired for training. Thirty-eight WASPs died in service.

“If we got killed in action our friends passed the hat to get enough money to send our personal effects home to the family. We couldn’t have a military internment; we didn’t get a flag for the coffin; and we got no burial expenses,” WASP Madge Rutherford Minton noted. In a 1978 news story, WASP veteran Pat Pateman said: “We served our country, and when one of us died the parents were met with a pine box saying, ‘Thanks a lot, here’s your daughter’. It was pretty earth-shattering.”

Now, Arlington Cemetery offers earth-shattering disregard to the sons and daughters of WASP veterans.

The bureaucrats at Arlington are using the mistake of a 1940s Congress to justify excluding these veterans. When World War II started, women were forbidden from military service, but it was realized that the war effort would only succeed if that changed, so all military branches created women’s units that were enacted as civilian entities until Congress militarized them. One by one, women in the Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy were militarized. But when the WASP bill came up for debate in 1944, Congress balked: it wasn’t able to accept a unit of women who engaged in the most masculinized and romanticized role: the military pilot. The WASPs were disbanded.

In 1977 Congress passed and the President signed a bill allowing the WASPs to “have their service recognized as active military service by the Secretary of Defense and to receive honorable discharges and full veterans’ benefits.” When Airforce Colonel Arnold testified before the House, he said this about WASP military burials: “Who is more deserving, a young girl, flying on written official military orders who is shot down and killed by our own anti-aircraft artillery while carrying out those orders, or a young finance clerk with an eight to five job in a Denver finance office?”

We should be ashamed to let these veterans’ dying wishes be ignored. The WASPs gave their everything to the war effort—can’t we as a country at least permit them to be buried with the honor they earned?

Molly Merryman, Ph.D., is a documentary filmmaker, author and an associate professor of Sociology and director of LGBT and Women’s Studies at Kent State University. She is the author of Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) of World War II (NYU Press, 1998) and has written a number of academic journal articles and book chapters. She also has produced and directed documentaries that have screened internationally and been broadcast on regional PBS stations.

Putting the Lead in Structural Violence

—Peter C. Little

As anthropologist and disaster studies expert Gregory Button, author of Disaster Culture, recently put it, the unfolding disaster in Flint, Michigan is more than a case of urban lead contamination. Rather, it is a “morality play about structural violence.” [i] He encourages this way of thinking about this emerging national environmental health conflict because this “structural violence” he refers to is about a system of racial discrimination that is a social, political, economic, and infrastructural fact of life in the US. Thinking about the structural violence of lead contamination requires a focus on how lead politics are exacerbated by deep-historical racial discrimination and ongoing poverty politics. As evidence for these lead-related disasters, Button sites a recent study [ii] published in the American Journal of Public Health that reports that while 41.5% of Flint residents are living below the poverty line—compared to the national average in 2014 of 14.8%—nearly 60% are African American. These are some bare facts of inequity that when meshed with toxic substance exposure risk exacerbates the bitter reality of recent Flint water crisis headlines.

The scale, scope, and depth of this man-made disaster are impressive, no doubt justifying the need for an environmental justice perspective on the matters at hand. Robert Bullard, long regarded a leader in the environmental justice community and a major source of inspiration for social scientists working on environmental and social justice conflicts, was recently interviewed about the Flint conflict. [iii] He speaks of a “reality” that goes beyond lead toxicity, drinking water distribution pipes, and a systemically fraudulent city, state, and federal government: “Unequal protection is a reality. The right to clean air, clean water and safe places for kids to play is something that affluent communities take for granted. But many low-income and minority communities don’t get parks, or street lights, or housing code enforcement, or safe drinking water. The cumulative environmental stresses in these neighborhoods create a toxic stew. And then government agencies don’t respond when people complain. The government’s nonresponse to Flint’s water crisis is on the scale of the federal nonresponse to Hurricane Katrina.”

The municipal, state, and federal response and mitigation plan unfolding in Flint also turns our attention to how such disasters are treated more as “technical” water management problems rather than human relations problems. Some critiques of the situation have suggested that “Working with communities to plan for better infrastructure, funding those developments, and adequately enforcing environmental laws will help reduce the number of future similar crises from becoming disasters.” [iv] While continuing to expose the contentious role of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his government counterparts in this complex disaster still matters, an underlying politics of uncertainty lingers as impacted residents try to navigate a living amid the circus of accusations and attempts to restore calm. Continuing to deal with what residents themselves are dealing with is of utmost importance and ought to be where local, state, and federal government energy and forms of empathy focus.

[i] See http://foodanthro.com/2016/01/20/the-flint-water-disaster-a-perfect-storm-of-downplaying-denial-and-deceit/

[ii] See http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003

[iii] See http://www.juancole.com/2016/01/flints-water-crisis-is-a-blatant-example-of-environmental-injustice.html

[iv] See http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/01/22/the-real-disasters-in-flints-water-crisis/

Peter C. Little is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rhode Island College. He is the author of Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks (NYU Press, 2014).

Flint’s Sorry Legacy of Environmental Racism

—Carl Zimring

“I am sorry, and I will fix it.”

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder devoted his State of the State speech to the public health catastrophe in Flint that has poisoned its residents with high levels of lead in its water supply.

This failure has many parents, including Snyder. His administration placed an emergency manager in control of Flint’s finances, a manager who who was not elected by its citizens to do the will of the people of the city. Saving money by switching the water supply ignored the well-being of Flint residents, as was the state’s initially dismissive response to health complaints.

Snyder bears responsibility and blame, but he is not alone. The seeds for this catastrophe were sown decades before the 2011 managerial takeover. Deindustrialization and residential segregation shaped a city with low revenue, high unemployment, and the apathy and scorn of white Michiganders. That history allowed the past two years of lead poisoning.

Environmental racism is the systemic placing of toxic burdens upon people of color. It is an example of structural racism – not necessarily the conscious acts of individuals, but ways in which society is structured that creates patterns of unequal burdens.

The health catastrophe in Flint involves reliance on decaying infrastructure due to disinvestment in the region. Why these conditions led to the poisoning of black children involves structural patterns in residential real estate practices, as well as recent political decisions. Environmental Justice movements have fought for safer, healthier communities for decades, including African American residents opposing waste siting in Houston (1978) and Warren County (1982), and Latino residents of Chicago protesting dirty coal-burning power plants in their neighborhoods in this century.

Yet inequalities persist. They are rooted deeply in land-use patterns, employment patterns, and in cultural stereotypes that privilege whites to have clean, safe communities at the expense of people of color. Noxious stereotypes that nonwhite people were somehow less clean than whites emerged in the nineteenth century, stereotypes that have informed who handles waste and where waste is located. Sociologists observed national patterns of inequities by the late twentieth century. Thirty years ago, the report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States concluded exposure to toxic pollution was determined by race above all other variables, including class, region, and urban/rural density. Ten years ago, a followup report revealed more continuities than change. Flint is further continuity.

The eyes of the nation are on Flint in 2016, but they could easily be on lead-contaminated communities in East New York or Gary, Indiana. Flint is the most conspicuous example of environmental racism in the United States. There are so many examples, however, that a bimonthly journal (Environmental Justice) has filled eight volumes of articles chronicling environmental inequalities. Governor Snyder’s promise that he will fix the present crisis flies in the face of his past actions, the history of Flint, and majority-minority communities across the United States. Recognizing this history is crucial to fixing what ails Flint.

Carl A. Zimring is Associate Professor of Sustainability Studies in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute. He is the author of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (NYU Press, 2016).

Dissent and the 2016 Election

—Ralph Young

There have been many times of crisis throughout American history when some citizens completely lose faith in the political process. Invariably such times lead to a rise of uncompromising radicals on the fringes of the body politic who eschew compromise in favor of a fundamental overhaul of what they see as a defunct system. One thinks of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s desperately fighting to stem the tide of Irish immigration which they feared would destroy the Protestant fabric of this nation, or the Populist Party of the 1890s who believed neither of the major parties were willing to address their grievances, or the rise of radical demagogues on both right and left during the Great Depression when it seemed to many that capitalism itself had failed, or was at best on the ropes, who denounced everything from the New Deal to Wall Street, from big business to communism. Some hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt; some hated the “economic royalists.”

What we are experiencing in the second decade of the twenty-first century is a replay of this historical phenomenon. As we approach the 2016 election there are those on the right who deplore what they see as creeping European style socialism on the part of a government that has abandoned laissez faire capitalism in favor of regulatory control over business and finance, a government that has abandoned the rugged individualism that they believe (falsely) made this country great. And on the left we see progressives who are highly distraught that the Democratic Party has turned its back on democracy and dances to the tune of business interests just as much as the Republicans. Thus we have outsiders challenging the establishment, on both right and left, who, believing that bipartisanship and compromise is weakness, are tapping into a vein of deep-seated discontent. Many Americans are obsessed by a nagging fear that the United States is in decline and will soon lose its special place in the world. And this helps explain the unexpected popularity in the primary season of Donald Trump and Ben Carson on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left.

Registered Republicans want anyone, even candidates as unqualified as Trump and Carson, who will oppose the Washington establishment, they want an outsider, a novitiate in politics, precisely because they are not politicians, in fact are completely ignorant of how politics works. And large numbers of Democrats, fed up with the coziness of Democratic politicians with Wall Street and believing that the United States is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy, are turning to socialist Bernie Sanders as the only hope to return the United States to its democratic roots. “Isn’t it strange,” Sanders’ forerunner and hero Eugene V. Debs said during his trial for sedition in 1918, “that we Socialists stand almost alone today in upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States?” Sanders is taking up Debs’s message and it resonates deeply with his supporters. Whether they are outsiders, or demagogues, or opponents of business as usual, hardnosed individuals from Huey Long to George Wallace, Father Coughlin to Donald Trump, all appeal to the populist impulse. And all are as American as Apple Pie.

Ralph Young is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, a compilation of primary documents of 400 years of American dissenters, and Dissent: The History of an American Idea (NYU Press, 2015).

The Refugee Dilemma and the Broader Immigration Debate

—Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia

Last week, the New Yorker ran a heartbreaking piece titled The Refugee Dilemma sharing the story of Nelson Kargbo, a former child story from Sierra Leone who upon entering in the United States as a refugee endured a series of joys that included his role as a father and sorrows that included a lengthy term in prison and in solitary confinement, which according to this psychiatrist, worsened a predisposition to psychosis. The story of Kargbo tells a larger story about the complexity of the U.S. immigration system and the real impact of immigration law and enforcement on people who have fled extraordinary conditions before arriving to the United States.

To arrive in the United States as a refugee like Kargbo and his family is no simple task. Refugees include people who have been persecuted or face persecution in their home country because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. While the politics of refugee resettlement are volatile in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis and the anti-Muslim sentiment that has emerged after bloodshed around the world and inside the United States, the reality is that refugees are  the most rigorously screened immigrant populations in the United States.

As Karbo did, refugees apply for permanent residency (a green card) one year after arrival — after five years, refugees may apply for United States citizenship. Importantly, having a green card does not provide total security. The Department of Homeland Security or DHS has the authority to arrest, detain and deport a wide range of noncitizens including those who fail to file a change of address card on time; commit certain crimes; and overstay their visas to name a few.

The method by which Kargbo moved from the criminal system into the immigration system after ICE (one enforcement arm in DHS) placed a “hold” on him is a recurring theme in immigration enforcement. The question about whether local law enforcement should cooperate with ICE has been a controversial as it implicates public safety at the local level and undercuts trust with immigrant communities.

Kargbo was placed in a courtroom process known as “removal proceedings” which itself is an adversarial hearing at which an ICE attorney serves as the prosecutor and where the noncitizen acts as the “respondent” or defendant before an immigration judge who is part of the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. At the removal hearing, noncitizens respond to the immigration charges against them and apply for qualifying forms of relief such as asylum, cancellation of removal and adjustment of status. As highlighted by Kargbo’s story, limited relief is available for people who have committed certain crimes in part because Congress has removed much of the discretion judges once held to factor in individual equities.

Importantly, most people are deported (removed) do not have a removal proceeding or opportunity to tell their story to an immigration judge.  The law contains expedited procedures for people who arrive in the United States without papers or false papers; those living in the United States without a green card who have committed certain crimes and those who reentered the United States have a removal order. In fiscal year 2013, more than 75% of removals were executed through one of these “speed deportation” programs.

Kargbo’s journey also highlights the limits of the U.S. immigration system. Many noncitizens are forced to navigate the immigration removal process without an attorney because there is generally no court-appointed counsel. One has to wonder whether Kargbo would have received the protection he was legally eligible for without hours and expertise from his pro bono attorneys and the specialists who were able to document his mental health and prospects for care in Sierra Leone. The restrictions on court appointed counsel are universal which means that young people, individuals with mental health complications, asylum seekers with significant language and cultural barriers and other vulnerable populations have no right to court appointed counsel.

Importantly, DHS has enormous power to decide who to arrest, detain and deport. With 11.3 million people living in the United States without authorization and thousands more individuals like Kargbo charged with removal as a green card holder, DHS must manage its enforcement wisely. Enter in prosecutorial discretion. When prosecutorial discretion is exercised favorably, DHS has made a choice to limit or refrain from enforcing the immigration law against a person. This discretion has functioned in the immigration system for many years and is crucial because the agency has the resources to deport less than 4% of the millions eligible for removal. Beyond the economics are the humanitarian reasons behind prosecutorial discretion- young people, those with serious medical conditions and those with strong family ties in the United States are among the kinds of people who have been granted prosecutorial discretion historically. A prosecutorial discretion grant is a temporary reprieve at best and leaves the person in an immigration purgatory as opposed to a more secure status like lawful permanent residency.  While Kargbo received a semi-secure form of protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, his story leaves the discussion door open for the role of prosecutorial discretion in the scores of cases where formal protection under the law is unavailable. DHS can and should use prosecutorial discretion to protect individuals with compelling equities and imperfect histories.

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia is the Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar and the Director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights at Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law. Previously, Wadhia was Deputy Director for Legal Affairs at the National Immigration Forum and an associate with Maggio Kattar P.C., both in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Beyond Deportation: The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Cases (NYU Press, 2015).

Decades of Xenophobia Shape US Response to Syrian Refugees

[This piece originally appeared in Truthout.]

—Richard Baldoz & Shelley Sang-Hee Lee

Current debates surrounding President Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 have revealed deep political fissures in the United States. Until recently, criticism focused on the Obama administration’s doing too little to aid people fleeing the bloody civil war in Syria, but Republican leaders have now seized on the terror attacks in France, while stoking anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, to oppose refugee resettlement on national security grounds.

While the White House and its allies dismiss their opponents’ position as xenophobic and un-American, this line of argument is also simplistic, as our history with refugees is an ambivalent one. Over the past century, the prospect of settling refugees has tested Americans’ self-avowed benevolence, underscoring our conflicted attitudes about newcomers and raising inconvenient questions about the extension of US power abroad.

As migrants, refugees are distinct. They are a displaced people escaping danger who, unlike conventional immigrants, have not voluntarily left their homes for reasons like family reunification or economic opportunity. While in the abstract, humanitarian concern for refugees is a broadly agreed upon principle, we have been tentative when it comes to admitting living, breathing people. During the late 1930s, for instance, as European Jews were fleeing Nazi aggression, two-thirds of Americans opposed increasing immigration ceilings to admit them, citing fears that Bolsheviks or German agents might slip into the country. This was also a time of international isolation, marked by economic depression and low immigration. It was not until 1944, as Americans learned more about the horrors of the Holocaust, that special provisions were made to admit Jews.

With the onset of the Cold War, anti-communism and diplomacy guided US actions on refugees and revealed the selective application of humanitarian compassion. For much of the second half of the 20th century, policies allowing refugees’ entry were implemented in an ad hoc fashion and usually only applied to people fleeing communist regimes. For example, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 prompted the admission of tens of thousands of Hungarians, and Cuba’s socialist revolution of 1959 led to the United States accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees from that country. In these cases federal officials opened the doors by invoking emergency powers, despite most Americans’ opposition due to concerns about potential communist infiltrators and other “undesirables.” By contrast, during the 1980s, Haitians fleeing the dictatorial but US-backed Duvalier regime were repeatedly denied asylum or refugee status on the grounds that they were economic migrants whose human rights had not been violated.

After the Vietnam War, Americans hesitated to admit Southeast Asian refugees, due in part to a legacy of anti-Asian immigration exclusion and a desire for closure from a divisive war. Because people were fleeing Communist governments, politicians acceded that the United States had a duty to admit them, and Americans’ urgency to do so deepened after learning about tragedies like the plight of “boat people” and the “killing fields” of Cambodia.

Ideological commitments and moral compassion aside, the United States’ obligations also stemmed from a history of interventions in Indochina going back to the 1950s. Determined to contain communism, it committed troops to fighting in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973 and conducted secret bombings and military operations in Cambodia and Laos. After the communist victories in these countries in 1975, persecution and violent purges of dissidents and minorities prompted massive exoduses, a segment of which the United States admitted.

Four years later, facing pressure to accept more refugees, two-thirds of Americans opposed increases due to worries about their assimilability and the prospect that they would drain public resources. Eventually, about 1 million Southeast Asian refugees were resettled in the United States, and they have inarguably been woven into the fabric of our nation over the past 40 years despite the enormous hardships they have faced.

While the troubles in Syria seem removed by comparison, recent US actions there, as well as a long history of meddling in Middle East affairs, underscore the US role and obligations in the current crisis. Viewed one way, modeling moral leadership on the refugee issue can be an effective anti-terror strategy against ISIS propaganda that portrays the United States as an anti-Muslim nation.

The debate about admitting refugees, moreover, begs a moral and philosophical question about the consequences of US foreign intervention: If we are committed to toppling the Assad regime in Syria and defeating ISIS through proxy fighting and aerial bombings, why would we withhold refuge to those fleeing the turmoil?

We might also keep a longer history in view, because despite decades of diplomatic and military entanglements in the region – in the name of anti-communism, Israel, oil and more recently anti-terrorism – our perspective on the Syrian refugee crisis is strikingly myopic. And yet, as we witness another humanitarian catastrophe, some of our leaders raise the specter of terrorists entering the United States, glossing over the fact that refugee screening entails multiple and lengthy rounds of examination by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the United States, making entry for anyone enormously difficult. It defies reason to think individuals with terrorist aspirations would submit themselves to a multiyear vetting process that probes into every aspect of their past and present associations.

The interrelated propositions framing the debate about Syrian refugees – that we have a moral obligation to provide shelter to those facing imminent danger, and that the US bears a responsibility because of its interventions in the country and region – point to a dilemma we have confronted before. Additionally, how we treat refugees mirrors not just our mixed feelings about newcomers and the world outside, but also ignorance about the world within our borders (thus highlighting an irony of the promise of US safe harbor). In the war on terrorism, our imprecise understandings of its origins and trajectories have given rise to enemies that are creations of our own bigotries, which pervade discussions about Syrian refugees and have made scapegoats of Americans of Arab and South Asian descent.

After President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, which created a comprehensive system for processing refugee and asylum cases, he proclaimed, “[It] is the historical policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands.” Although not entirely accurate, this statement echoes a challenge to which we ought to rise.

Richard Baldoz is a professor of sociology at Oberlin College. He specializes in the areas of immigration and citizenship policy and is the author of the award-winning The Third Asiatic Invasion: Empire and Migration in Filipino America (NYU Press, 2011).

Shelley Sang-Hee Lee is a professor of history and comparative American studies at Oberlin College. Dr. Lee specializes in Asian American history and urban studies. She is the author of A New History of Asian America (Routledge).